In 1966, John Lennon mused during an interview about the declining popularity of religion in England, and how it contrasted with the rise of rock and roll music. He casually wondered aloud if his theory, that Christianity would eventually become extinct, would come true. He felt that it would, and mirrored that sentiment with how popular his band, and rock and roll in general, was becoming. He said, “We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.” It was a fairly offhand remark, and certainly not something he was passionate about. And yet, it became perhaps the biggest scandal ever involving the Beatles. In this video, we’re taking a look at the story behind the “Bigger Than Jesus” scandal, and the fallout from it. So stick around, as Facts Verse presents: John Lennon Mocked God and Paid the Ultimate Price.
The Beatles were the biggest band in the world in the 1960’s, and journalists from all over the world clamored to snag interviews with them. The band was fairly dubious about letting just anyone into their inner circle. But there were a few journalists who appeared to past muster for them. One of these was Maureen Cleave, a writer for the London Evening Standard. The fab four felt that Cleave was intelligent and knew a lot about music, and they respected her work. They also liked the fact that she was of similar age to them, making her feel more like a peer than other journalists of the age. Because of that trust, the band agreed to let Cleave do a long profile on them. Cleave asked if she could do separate interviews with each of them, and they agreed to that as well. She spent an time with Lennon and his family at their house in a London suburb. In her article, she wrote about his propensity for staying in, his need for privacy, and his desire to expand his mind. The mid expansion sometimes took the form of taking psychedelics, and other times simply from being a voracious reader. He was particular interested in books about religion. So eventually they arrived on the topic of religion during the interview. John made a casual reference to the band (and more likely he meant rock and roll music in general) being more popular than Jesus. His point was simply noting the decline of the popularity of the church in England. And the rise of new forms of ‘worship’ if you will.
He Wasn’t Alone
Lennon’s statement wasn’t a particularly incendiary or inaccurate one. At that point, especially in England, the statistics were on his side. Church attendance had fallen off drastically. There were advocates for the church who were making the same case in publications like The Church Times, and The Daily Mail, with editorials bemoaning the fact that people weren’t attending church anymore. At that point, people associated Christianity primarily with the Church of England. And the Church of England was considered incredibly out of touch with modern times, and was often mocked by satirists and comedians of the day.
And amazingly, clergymen, aware of this issue, actually sought out advice from the Beatles. According to Paul McCartney, they would get a lot of Catholic priests coming to their shows, and would chat with the band afterwards. Paul said that they would complain about how the band drew huge crowds, but the churches were having trouble doing the same. He also said he gave them the advice of modernize the music they played, to appeal to younger audiences. He mentioned adding in more gospel music in particular. McCartney was quick to point out that the band itself was actually quite pro-church. They were happy to help the priests try to find ways to get more people to come to church. So the fact that they ended up being labeled as church haters was bizarre to him.
The remark was not initially even clocked as being anything mildly controversial. It was included in the London Evening Standard article, but wasn’t part of the headline, nor did it get any kind of feature in the article itself. As such, it didn’t initially cause a stir. However, several months later, the article was brought to the attention of Arthur Unger, who ran Datebook Magazine. Datebook was far from a stodgy conservative publication though. It promoted edgy and liberal ideals, and had done a fair amount of coverage on the Beatles. The Beatles were actually fans of the magazine, and they’d allowed Unger to join them on tours, given him great access, and generally treated him as an insider. And as he began covering them more and more, he saw the numbers for Datebook go up in big ways. As such, he was always on the lookout for new and interesting ways to write about them. When he read Cleave’s piece, he thought it would be perfect for Datebook. He put them on the cover, and decided to highlight two particular quotes. One was from McCartney, who had said that he couldn’t respect a country (namely the U.S.) that treated black people so poorly. (He used different language that we’ll steer clear of, but his sentiment was one of civil rights for Black Americans.) Unger also included Lennon’s quote about not knowing if rock and roll or Christianity would go first. The issue was published on July 29, 1966, and the “Bigger than Jesus” controversy began.
“Ban The Beatles” campaign
Tommy Charles, a radio DJ in Birmingham, Alabama was the first to publicly comment on the quote. He was something of a precursor to “shock jocks” and was always on the lookout for scandals he could talk about. He saw the quote about Jesus, and immediately condemned the remark on his radio show. Despite the fact that Lennon wasn’t bragging, and was actually complaining more about the fact that people weren’t going to church as much, Charles saw it as an opportunity to spin it the other way and get a lot of press. He called out for people to “Band the Beatles” and he declared he wouldn’t play the Beatles’ music on the station. Then, Al Benn, who was the manager of the local United Press International, joined the fight. He’d heard Charles’ show about the Beatles, and agreed with his idea of banning them. He quickly wrote a story about the “Beatle Boycott” and it got picked up by publications all over the south. Fundamentalist Christians decided en masse that the Beatle had positioned himself opposite Jesus. And given their strong faith, they felt that they had no choice but to side with Christ over Lennon. More stations all over the country began to join onto the Ban The Beatles movement, and people also started pulling publicity stunts to cash in on the craze. Charles himself organized for people to mail their Beatles records to the station, where he would grind them up in a tree-shredding machine. And this set off many instances of people burning Beatle records, including a giant bonfire started by the grand dragon of the KKK in South Carolina.
Lennon and The Beatles’ response
The Fab Four generally found the whole affair pretty amusing. They knew that John wasn’t trying to be blasphemous, and that he was simply pointing out a basic truth that was evident form the basic numbers. Paul later told a biographer that the band considered it ‘hysterical low-grade American thinking.’ And he said that the band liked to point out that people had to buy their albums before they could break or burn them. He joked that it wasn’t compulsory to listen to Beatles albums after purchasing them, so everyone was free to do whatever they liked with them. Lennon was asked for an apology for the remark, but refused to give on. He said that he had forgotten even making the remark, and that it was over and done either way. But the band’s manager, Brian Epstein, realized that someone from the band’s camp needed to say something. He ended up making a statement of apology to the press that Lennon begrudgingly okayed. In it, Epstein pointed out that the quote had been misrepresented. He reiterated that Lennon had been accurately pointing out the decline in church attendance, especially from youth in England, over the last several decades. He also pointed out that Lennon was not trying to be boastful about the popularity and status of the Beatles. It was more that their effect was more immediate to members of the young generation than perhaps the church’s was at the moment.
Lennon’s later takes and his death
John wrote a book called “Skywriting By Word of Mouth,” and in it, he thanked Jesus for the opportunity to get off the road (because of the Beatle Boycott) and return to the recording studio. He felt they achieved more, creatively, when that happened. And while thanking Jesus in that context might have been tongue in cheek, he wasn’t by most accounts, Lennon wasn’t anti-God, or anti religion. But his beliefs, especially as he got older, did sway more towards atheism or agnosticism. In his first solo album he had a song where he listed off a bunch of things he didn’t believe in, including God. He said that he only believed in himself and his wife, Yoko Ono. He wrote that “God is a concept, by which we can measure, our pain.” And he famously asked about the notion of no religion in his song, Imagine. However, most historians agree that his steniment in that song was more about peace vs war, and how it would ideal if people didn’t fight over spiritual things. So it wasn’t anti-religion, per se, it was against the idea that people had to kill each other in the name of religion.
Lennon was assassinated by Mark David Chapman on December 8th, 1980. Chapman had grown angry over what he saw as Lennon’s disrespect for God and religion. He later cited the “Bigger than Jesus” quote as one of the reasons he wanted to kill Lennon. His lawyers tried to get him to plead insanity, but he ended up pleading guilty for what he referred to as the will of God.
Now it’s time to hear from you. Do you think John Lennon was unfairly targeted after his sentiments about the decline of church attendance and the popularity of the Beatles? Let us know in the comments section below!